The Mundane Guide to the Wiccan Rede

An approach to understanding Pagan practice

© 2015, Gary Gocek ... Site home ... Pagan and paranormal oriented content

I am a practicing Christian and have never been a practicing Pagan, but I have encountered a few Wiccans and have found it interesting to research their religion. In this essay, I may make mistakes from ignorance, but there is no intent to insult or denigrate. Scroll to the bottom for references.

Wicca and the Rede: Wicca is a mid-20th century revival of the pre-Christian, pagan practices of Europe. Wiccans experience the divine as immanent, as embodied in the universe, the world in all its aspects and in humanity, as well as transcendent. All of life is sacred and interconnected. Wicca incorporates ancient and modern liturgy, ritual and shamanic practices by which people attune themselves to the natural rhythms of the earth and the universe, enabling them to experience communion with the embodied divine. Wiccans honor nature as a profound spiritual teacher and devote themselves to the contemplation and integration of the spiritual wisdom inherent in the earth's cycles of seasonal transformation. Wicca is a modern version of older practices such as witchcraft. All Wiccans are pagans, but not all pagans are Wiccans. Wicca is a dynamic and accessible system of techniques. Spiritual insight is achieved through living in harmony with the earth. Women have played an important role in the development of Wicca, moreso than the major religions, and while there is some diversity with respect to lists of deities, Wiccans tend to worship a female goddess above the rest. Wicca is non-dogmatic with no single leader or absolute truth, although most Wiccans recognize some guidance from a 26 couplet poem known as the Rede, especially the final verse, "An [if] it harm none, do what you will." This honors the great freedom that each individual has to ascertain truth, to experience the divine directly, and to determine how to best live her or his own life. Wiccans practice magic and cast spells using a form of ritual and meditation similar to prayer, except that, instead of beseeching the aid or intervention of an external deity, the indwelling divine energy is drawn outward into manifestation in the world through harmonious interaction with the divine presence already present.

The word cowan is used herein to refer to non-pagans. Some pagans (not all) use it in a derogatory sense, not unlike the historical uses of heathen, gentile and infidel. The word mundane refers to our secular, non-spiritual lives, experienced through the five physical senses.

The "long form" of the Rede considered here was first published in Green Egg Magazine in 1975 via Lady Gwynne Thompson (1928-1986), who attributed it to Adriana Porter (1857-1946). The exact text differs between web sites, and the version below comes from Thompson's own organization, the New England Covens of Traditionalist Witches. Given their direct association with Thompson, I assume that the NECTW version is an accurate reprint. The meaning and proper practice of the Rede are actively debated. Thompson suggested the Rede is best explained orally, and it is difficult to find written annotations on the Web or otherwise. This Rede, neopagan as it is, uses references that are hard for a cowan to decipher.

Extensive information one the Wiccan Rede may be found on Wiccan Rede Project resurrection.

There are inconsistencies of meter and grammar in the Rede. The Rede may have been the work of multiple people, or Thompson may have been careless when submitting to Green Egg, or maybe it was intentional. The use of an' and and are inconsistent. The use of punctuation and capitalization are inconsistent. The influence of the rise of Western-style feminism after World War II on a pagan proud of her ancient beliefs is unclear, but likely profound. My approach to the Rede is that it can't be taken literally, but the metaphors influence the daily life of the faithful.

While everything on the Internet is subject to skepticism, comprehension of the Rede varies widely among web-based Wiccans, from thoughtful praise to woeful ignorance. This is partly due to the general acceptance of Wiccans who study alone, even though the uncomplimentary phrase "IRAB" (I Read A Book) is sometimes applied to self-proclaimed Wiccans. Although the long form of the Rede is easily found on the Web, many Wiccans simply don't follow it, one criticism being that several couplets mirror Christian platitudes. Even the final couplet has its detractors. A non-dogmatic religion such as Wicca does not distribute wisdom easily. Unlike Christians who accept the Bible as the word of their God, Wiccans do not universally recognize any source of inerrant wisdom. And yet, the Rede survives.

The Rede is comprised of 26 couplets. Each couplet stands alone, although there are connections, such as couplets that mention lunar phases. This essay observes two types of couplets: behavioral and technical. A behavioral couplet tells a Wiccan how to act in daily life. A technical couplet tells a Wiccan how to act under a specific set of circumstances. The behavioral couplets are 1, 2, 5, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 25, 26. The technical couplets are 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 24. Many of the technical couplets imply some means of gathering knowledge beyond the usual five human senses, but even these couplets can be creatively interpreted for consideration by non-Wiccans.

The Wiccan Rede (or, The Rede of the Wiccae)

WR01 – behavioral

Bide the Wiccan Laws ye must In Perfect Love and Perfect Trust.

In order to be considered a Wiccan, one must follow these rules. Additionally, have faith in the guidance of the Rede even (or especially) during difficult times, as the Rede has been passed through the years from experienced followers of the Craft.

Mundanely, a person should choose a path in life and remain steadfast.

WR02 – behavioral

Live an' let live - Fairly take an' fairly give.

This recurring theme of the Rede is similar to the Golden Rule (do to others as you would have them do to you). Some versions substitute "freely" for "fairly", and it seems that "fairly take and freely give" would be even better.

WR03 – technical

Cast the Circle thrice about To keep all evil spirits out.

pentagram Consider the common symbol of a pentagram (five pointed star) in a circle. The symbol can be drawn on the ground and used as a ceremonial location. Outline the circle three times. Circular gestures are used during rituals, such as to retain energy, and this rule may then apply. It cannot be ignored that Wiccans, especially those active in covens, embrace many rituals involving physical motions, chants, incense, etc., and a number of the couplets reflect these rituals.

Mundanely, "safety first".

WR04 – technical

To bind the spell every time - Let the spell be spake in rhyme.

The use of rhyme is common and important amond Wiccan rituals. To some extent, the casting of a "spell" can be considered a metaphor, but most neo-pagans undoubtedly and frequently cast spells for various purposes, both "white" (for the betterment of self and mankind) and "black" (for selfish or vengeful purposes). The use of rhyme does not result in guaranteed success, but it helps with ritual focus and group activities.

Mundanely, there is a best way to perform any task.

WR05 – behavioral

Soft of eye an' light of touch - Speak little, listen much.

In all relationships, with humans or nature, tread lightly and be sensitive to others. Traditionalist Wiccans, from whom this Rede originates, encourage a careful progression from neophyte to elder and sometimes treat solitary practitioners and other eclectics with at least a quiet disdain. To expect to learn Wicca outside of traditional methods led by experienced teachers is inherently not "light of touch".

WR06 – technical

Deosil go by the waxing Moon - Sing and dance the Wiccan rune.

Deosil means clockwise, matching the perceived movement of the sun and moon. This rule can be used to determine the direction in which to draw the circle around the ceremonial pentagram. The Wiccan Rune is a chant of four or five verses that can be recited during a ritual. The "circle dance" is performed by coven members holding hands to make a circle and moving around in the specified direction.

WR07 – technical

Widdershins go when the Moon doth wane, An' the Werewolf howls by the dread Wolfsbane.

Widdershins means counterclockwise. This rule can be used to determine the direction in which to draw the circle around the ceremonial pentagram.

The werewolf and wolfsbane references are problematic and often removed by covens or traditions due to a lack of agreement on their interpretation and to negative perceptions by the general public. Wolfsbane, the plant, can be toxic to humans, but is not particularly infamous in this respect.

Wicca does not deal much with the supernatural (maybe even less than Christianity). The "spirit" references in WR03 and WR13 can be treated as figures of speech used by just about anyone, so this werewolf reference stands out. Wiccans often seem to be attached to the notion of duality in everything; everything is part feminine and part masculine, good and bad, light and dark, so on and so forth; werewolves are part human and part beast. Werewolves in folklore are typically male, and it's possible that Western-style feminism's incluences on the development of Wicca led Porter to take a catty pot-shot at men (we hope not). I assume that the werewolf reference is meaningful, but it doesn't seem to fit with the rest of Wiccan practice. On the internet, the few Wiccans who address this don't provide a better intepretation than I (a Christian) am giving you here.

Mundanely, adjust activity according to the situation. And howl.

WR08 – technical

When the Lady's Moon is new, Kiss thy hand to Her times two.

Blow two kisses to the new moon. This can refer to a gesture that would "draw down the moon", bringing the power of the Goddess to the Wiccan. Further, this may suggest one gesture with each hand, both to send energy and receive it. Such gestures are taught carefully by experienced practitioners as rituals are performed.

Mundanely, from the first explanation, act courteously and respect elders.

WR09 – technical

When the Moon rides at Her peak Then your heart's desire seek.

Note that "your heart's desire" may not be love, it may be material gain or an occurrence, etc. Consider the act of psychic "claiming" or "marking" in order to "hold" a desired object for eventual retrieval. The full moon provides light at night and is associated with activity of various sorts by Pagans and cowans alike, but note that the full moon only comes around once a month and a full moon is considered to be helpful to the effectiveness of Pagan ritual.

Mundanely, there is a time to break from normal drudgery to chase after desires, but not all the time.

WR10 – technical

Heed the Northwind's mighty gale - Lock the door and drop the sail.

One could imagine that the four consecutive couplets WR10-13 impart an understanding of nature gathered over the ages, but remember that the history of the Rede is mostly American and cannot be traced before the 1940s. Thompson's wisdom may have been related to nature, fertility, karma, magick, American style feminism, or just pretty poetry. It is unclear if the blowing of the wind is a metaphor or folklore reference for something else. This couplet refers to wintertime, and the lack of applicability to the southern hemisphere is frequently criticized.

Mundanely, there is a time and place for everything.

WR11 – technical

When the wind comes from the South, Love will kiss thee on the mouth.

Fair weather (summertime, in the northern hemisphere, at least) gets the blood flowing, doesn't it?

WR12 – technical

When the wind blows from the East, Expect the new and set the feast.

Watch for new developments and party down. This couplet refers to springtime and the significant Wiccan holiday of Beltane with its feast at the time of the vernal equinox.

Literature, science and folklore fail to suggest a significance of the east and west winds corresponding to WR12 and WR13. While the rising of the sun in the east suggests a beginning, and the setting of the sun in the west suggests an end, little evidence can be found that these couplets are anything more than colorful concoctions of Thompson and her fellow contributors.

WR13 – technical

When the West wind blows o'er thee, Departed spirits restless be.

It is not clear if this couplet refers to the active spirits of dead humans, or to, say, live humans who are traveling. In other words, possibly, the west wind brings on homesickness. This couplet refers to Autumn.

WR14 – technical

Nine woods in the Cauldron go - Burn them quick an' burn them slow.

For ceremonial reasons, nine types of wood are burned in a bonfire according to a poem by MacMorna: birch, willow, oak, hawthorn, fir, apple, grape vines, rowan, and hazel. The burn speed probably refers to the qualities of the types of wood, and each type of wood is used for specific purposes (whether ceremonial, medicinal, etc.). Some substitution is common as local availability may dictate. Cauldrons are used for daily as well as ceremonial reasons, and symbolize a number of things, including the female womb and the Goddess herself.

WR15 – technical

Elder be ye Lady's tree - Burn it not or cursed ye'll be.

For various reasons such as bad luck, bad smells and other bad reasons, don't burn elder (a type of wood). WR14 and WR15 imply an understanding of nature gleaned over the ages. While referring specifically to the qualities of different woods, the extended implication is that experience brings wisdom, and that we can learn from the experienced people around us.

WR16 – technical

When the Wheel begins to turn - Let the Beltane fires burn.

Wheel This refers to the "wheel of the year" containing eight points representing Beltane (May 1), Midsummer (summer solstice around June 21), Lughnasadh (August 1), Mabon (autumnal equinox around September 21), Samhain (November 1, preceded by festivities on All Hallows Eve), Yule (winter solstice around December 21), Imbolc (February 2) and Ostara (vernal equinox around March 21). WR16 refers specifically to the turning of the season to spring. Beltane is a a fertility-related holiday on which bonfires are lit to welcome springtime and the planting season. At this time, the rule of the Wheel is returned from the God to The Goddess, which may explain the use of the word "begin".

Mundanely, it's good to take a break once in a while to celebrate and worship.

WR17 – technical

When the Wheel has turned a Yule, Light the Log an' let Pan rule.

It's unclear why the Rede mentions only two of the points of the Wheel in WR16 and WR17. WR17 refers to the turning of the season to winter. At this time, the rule of the Wheel is returned to The God. Pan is the Horned God, an archetype of male virility within Wicca. The decision to use Pan specifically here is unclear, and Pan's mythical lecherousness cannot be ignored, but the prefix "pan" may also refer to the entire pantheon of entities honored or worshipped by a coven. The Christmas tradition of burning the Yule log can be traced back to older pagan practices of lighting bonfires to keep away evil spirits as winter begins.

Again, it's good to take a break once in a while to celebrate and worship.

WR18 – behavioral

Heed ye flower bush an' tree - By the Lady Blessèd Be.

This is a typical Pagan suggestion to honor nature, and if you do that, the Lady will be cool with you.

Mundanely, respect the environment.

WR19 – technical

Where the rippling waters go Cast a stone an' truth ye'll know.

This represents a form of scrying. Among the general public, the best known form of scrying utilizes a crystal ball. The scryer uses some method to develop a trancelike state and eventually envisions information in the scrying medium. In the couplet, the medium appears to be "rippling waters", but it's unclear if the "scrying stone" should be cast into the rippling waters, or into the destination where the waters are flowing (such as the ocean at the end of the river), or just held near rippling waters, etc. It makes the most sense to create the ripples by casting the stone, but the couplet indicates that the waters are rippling before the stone is cast. These details would be carefully taught to the conscientious student.

Mundanely, skip rocks, which is a mindless pastime during which you can meditate on the questions of the day. Give your mind some time to grasp a situation and possible resolutions.

WR20 – behavioral

When ye have need, Hearken not to others greed.

This is similar to the Bible's tenth commandment, "Thou shalt not covet."

WR21 – behavioral

With the fool no season spend Or be counted as his friend.

Traditionally, the fool is any cowan. Wiccans are warned here to be especially wary of Christians. Although Pagans trace their beliefs and practices virtually to pre-historic times, much Pagan wailing and gnashing of teeth is focused on the "burning times", i.e., the Middle Ages, when pagans were persecuted harshly by Christians. Neopagans hold this grudge in modern times and it can be difficult for even sincere cowans and Pagans to have a productive conversation about religion.

The Pagan who is willing to fraternize with non-Pagans will more generally claim that there is a fool in all of us. However, this couplet seems pretty unforgiving. The guidance is not to teach, but to avoid.

Mundanely, this advice is pretty straightforward, as long as one is wise enough to identify the fool.

WR22 – behavioral

Merry meet an' merry part - Bright the cheeks an' warm the heart.

Well stated. Consider also the King James Version of 2 Corinthians 13:12, "Greet one another with an holy kiss."

WR23 – behavioral

Mind the Threefold Law ye should - Three times bad an' three times good.

All behavior has consequences, good or bad, and they'll return at three times the strength.

Mundanely, actions have consequences.

WR24 – technical

When misfortune is enow, Wear the Blue Star on thy brow.

Enow means "enough". Paint a blue pentagram on your forehead when you've had "just about enough". Consider also the Pagan "starring" gesture, similar to the Christian "sign of the cross", except that the Pagan version has five points representing the five elements of earth, air, fire, water, and spirit. Rather than paint, the suggestion is usually simply to perform the starring gesture. A blue start on the forehead, literal or otherwise, can represent the "third eye" of intuition or psychic awareness.

There is a Wiccan tradition (essentially a sect) referred to as "Blue Star" which possibly traces its name to this couplet. There is a plant referred to as "bluestar", but I don't think this couplet has anything to do with the plant.

Mundanely, close your eyes and count to ten.

WR25 – behavioral

True in love ever be Unless thy lover's false to thee.

Typically, the Pagan notion of "handfasting" (marriage) is not assumed to be permanent. Still, this couplet seems out of character with the others.

"Soft of touch" and "merry meet", blah blah blah, we're almost to the end and suddenly the kid gloves come off. Literally interpreted, a lover is freed from relationship vows if the other partner cheats, but most Wiccans do not take the couplets 100% literally because a literal interpretation is barely this side of anarchy. That being the case, one wonders if the wronged party has options other than ending the relationship. Remember again that the Rede was written by a feminist in the 1970s when women were asserting some control in a male-dominated post-WWII America, so this may simply give permission to leave a cheating husband, or it may intentionally leave the door open to further action.

One could interpret this couplet as giving a wronged person, particularly one who had been loyal in some matter but then betrayed, freedom to act as the sword of the Threefold Law (WR23), bringing vengeance times three upon the betrayer. The Threefold Law, of course, implies that this will just make things worse, but the couplet may be saying that a betrayal victim gets a pass when seeking revenge.

The first half of the couplet demands honesty and integrity, and The Goddess only knows what Thompson was thinking when she added "unless...".

WR26 – behavioral

Eight words ye Wiccan Rede fulfill - An' it harm none, Do what ye will.

The word "an'" is used in an archaic sense, meaning "if".

Wiccans almost universally recognize this as the most important tenet of Wicca, and some refer to this one couplet as the Rede. Taken literally, as mentioned above, this is not much better than anarchy, but most Wiccans take seriously the obligation to define harm and consider consequences before acting or not acting. There is a danger that the one who defines the meaning of harm is free to redefine it when the going gets tough, but again, committed Wiccans do not treat this couplet so lightly.

One must consider Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John by Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Augustine wrote, "Love, and do what you will." This is not obscure stuff. Thompson and Porter could be expected to have been familiar with Augustine and this particular quote. Augustine's use of "love" is specifically deistic, and the Rede's switch to "harm none" seems intended to reject any authority beyond the self. That doesn't mean Wiccans are inherently selfish, but they don't deny it.

In conclusion, mundanely, actions have consequences, and this needs to be understood before acting, and negative consequences should be avoided through appropriate action and/or inaction.